No singer/songwriter reflects life's bitter pills and missed opportunities more powerfully than Elvis Costello. From his debut in 1977 at the cutting edge of the British New Wave, this owlish, ex-computer programmer has been a one-man crusade against social complacency and the musically mundane, deserving of his favorable comparisons to Bob Dylan.
Through the mid-'80s, a healthy chunk of Costello's musical punch was attributable to his crackling band, The Attractions. It's a joy to report the guys have overcome their differences (even bassist Bruce Thomas' tacky, play- and-tell novel, "The Big Wheel") and reunited on this knockout album. Producer Nick Lowe is once again at the helm.
Musically diverse, Brutal Youth utilizes dabbles of sweet pop balladry, doo wop, Merseybeat and Beach Boy-mania, as well as Costello's brash brand of rock and roll. The album is unified by its disillusioning tales of life's passages.
The lead track, "Pony Street," poses a generational gap between a sarcastic, too-hip-for-words mother and her fashion-conscious daughter, as Mom proclaims, "I am the genuine thing, but for you it's just history."
The spitfire screamer, "20% Amnesia," is a polemic about "promises to break and dreams to kill." The woozy, Van Dyke Parks-like "London's Brilliant Parade" is a sardonic view of a city (by extension, a world) on the skids. Even "the lions and tigers in Regents Park couldn't pay their way" these days, Elvis mourns.
Scored with cheesy Steve Nieve keyboards and a sassy, Beatles-ish chorus, "This Is Hell" suggests that the worst punishments are the small humiliations we've faced and then eternally regret, and the sell-out lifestyle that may bring surface comfort but robs us of stimulation. (That's why it's Julie Andrews' sugary version of "My Favorite Things" the song's protagonist keeps hearing, not John Coltrane's wailing version.)
In related veins are cynically rock-happy "Just About Glad" and the ironically stately piano waltz, "You Tripped at Every Step," a tale of star-crossed lovers who never straighten up and fly right.
"Kinder Murder" is a compelling saga of a rapist thug who gets away with crime 'cause others protect him. "Sulky Girl" portrays a waitress with lots to hide. "My Science Fiction Twin" is a funny variant on the "evil twin" scenario, while "13 Steps Lead Down" takes a shot or two at 12-step recovery programs.
Take Elvis Costello's hard road, you'll really come to your senses.